The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life

byThomas M. Sterner
Rating 9 /10 Readability
Read Time 4 hrs Readible On
Published: 2012Read: October 11, 2015Pages: 168
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by Juvoni Beckford@juvoni

The amount of wisdom packed into this small book blew my mind. I immediately knew it was making the list only halfway through. In the practicing mind, the author emphasizes the importance of process over product and results. Most of the anxiety we experience in life, and failure to finish what we start comes from this feeling that there is a point of perfection in everything we do. Early life is all about trial-and-error practice, but modern life’s technological speed, habitual multitasking, and promises of instant gratification have made us lose touch with consistent hard work and trust in the process.

By focusing on “process, not product,” you’ll learn to live in each moment, where you’ll find calmness and equanimity. Creating the practicing mind comes down to these simple rules: keep yourself process-oriented, stay in the present, make the process the goal and use the overall goal as a rudder to steer your efforts, be deliberate, have an intention about what you want to accomplish, and remain aware of that intention.

Some of the most powerful traits you can get from being more process-oriented are becoming a more patient and disciplined individual. You’ll be able to pick a goal and apply steady effort to reach it while finding love in the journey of getting there.

Motivations to Read

I've spent a number of years of conscious effort towards habit development and continuous improvement. The practicing mind seemed to me like the perfect book to help validate or expand my knowledge in the area.

3 Reasons to Read

  • Develop Focus and Discipline in Your Life
  • Learn how to be present and observe without judgment
  • Acquire a practicing mindset for continued growth in your life

Notable Quotes

“Progress is a natural result of staying focused on the process of doing anything.” Thomas M. Sterner

“Everything in life worth achieving requires practice. In fact, life itself is nothing more than one long practice session, an endless effort of refining our motions. When the proper mechanics of practice are understood, the task of learning something new becomes a stress-free experience of joy and calmness, a process which settles all areas in your life and promotes proper perspective on all of life’s difficulties.” Thomas M. Sterner

“So few people are really aware of their thoughts. Their minds run all over the place without their permission, and they go along for the ride unknowingly and without making a choice.” Thomas M. Sterner

“When, instead, your goal is to focus on the process and stay in the present, then there are no mistakes and no judging. You are just learning and doing. You are executing the activity, observing the outcome, and adjusting yourself and your practice energy to produce the desired result. There are no bad emotions, because you are not judging anything.” Thomas M. Sterner

“The problem with patience and discipline is that developing each of them requires both of them.” Thomas M. Sterner

The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life Notes & Summary


_The Practicing Mind _ aims to remind you that life is one long practice session, an endless effort to refine the motions, both psychical and mental, that compose our days.

The ability to acquire and develop skills quickly is a skill in of itself, and requires practice.

This skill is a natural part of being human, but culture often teaches us otherwise.

This book is about how learning to live in the present moment and becoming process-oriented helps center us, build a sense of patience, self-worth and teaches us to enjoy the journey more.

When the proper mechanics of practice are understood, the task of learning something new becomes a stress-free experience of joy and calmness, a process which settles all areas in your life and promotes proper perspective on all of life's difficulties.

So few people are really ware of their thoughts. Their minds run all over the place without their permission, and they go along for the ride unknowingly and without making a choice.

Instead of observing their thoughts and using their thoughts to serve themselves, they are in their thoughts.

Just because technology has evolved so quickly, doesn't mean we have evolved as quickly as it. It many ways, it has made our lives more complicated.

Our struggles today are not unique to us, they are timeless, and many who have lived long before us have faced the same inner struggles we do.

If you are not in control of your thoughts, then you are not in control of yourself.

You cannot control what you are not aware of. Awareness must come first.

A paradox of life:

The problem with patience and discipline is that developing each of them requires both of them.

Process, Not Product

The author describes a time where he had participated in a six week group golf class.

From some the golf classes were seen as an extension of work in a way. They would meet new business contacts and discuss company matters in a relaxed setting.

He sensed frustration from one women, who remarked that golf was harder than in seemed and was afraid she wouldn't get good enough to the point where the game would be more fun.

He observed a number of people would leave after there lessons, and not invest extra time to solidify the teachings, so their learnings wouldn't fully absorb and carry over to the next week.

Things that the author did differently were:

  • He would show up early to warm up and practices swings before the lesson started
  • After lessons he would take notes and review them
  • He worked on one part of the swing at a time

He focused on learning the process of the golf swing, rather than the product of having a beautiful golf shot.

To get into the practicing mindset, you focus on the present moment, keeping you mind out of the past and the future. Letting go of premature expectations about how it will take to get the task done, focus on the process.

We have a very unhealthy habit of making the product, our intended result, the goal, instead of the process of reaching that goal.

In order to focus on the present, we must give up, at least temporarily, our attachment to our desired goal.

We spend too much time and energy focusing on something that hasn't occurred yet: the goal.

The words practice and learning are similar but not the same.

The word practice implies the presence of awareness and will.

The word learning does not.

When we practice something, we are involved in the deliberate repetition of a process with the intention of reaching a specific goal.

You can learn things without conscious knowledge of it. So learning doesn't always take content into consideration.

When we become too attached to the outcome of our events, we start and emotion judgment cycle that redirects and wastes our energy.

Our goal is to stay in the present, focused on the process and direct our energy towards whatever activity we are choosing at the present.

Focus on the end product starts when we are young, and school is the early environment which has the main marker of grades that define "who" we are.

Grades should be used to validate if teaching methods are working.

Because they are heavily used as metrics to determine our progression through the educational system, elementary through college, we often mistakenly intertwine grades with our self-worth and how far we will head in life.

Student's are conditioned to think the grade is everything; the knowledge nothing.

The grading system affects our attitudes towards making the product the priority, rather than the process.

The Japanese Process Oriented Culture

In the mid 70s, Japanese automobiles exceeded American cars in high-quality consistency and production speed.

This wasn't a situation limited to just cars, the Made in Japan mark represented quality.

The Japanese are very process-oriented in their life and work.

As the author and his friend were visiting a Japanese Piano manufacturer, they asked a worker who was preparing a Piano plate (the big gold harp assembly that holds all the strings) about how many plates did he finish that day.

The Japanese work, confused looked at him and answered, "As many as I can make perfect."

The author's friend asked him what would his supervisor think, and the Japanese man didn't even know what a "supervisor" was.

After finding out what a supervisor was, the Japanese worker responded, "Why would I need someone to make sure I do my job correctly? That's my job."

This is an extremely powerful mindset. If the workers eyes, if it took all day to make one perfect play, his job was done and he upheld the companies' standards.

We on the other hand, can't wait too long the product must be ready now. We have an instant-gratification culture.

Corporations are more interested in short-term profits then the long-term health of their organizations and employees.

Really liked this age-old saying referenced in the book:

"There is no destination in life; life is the destination."

Rules for creating The Practicing Mind

  • Keep yourself process-oriented
  • Stay in the present
  • Make the process the goal and use the overall goal as the rudder to steer your efforts
  • Be deliberate, have an intention about what you want to accomplish, and remain aware of that intention

As we attempt to understand ourselves and our struggles with life's endeavors, we may find peace in the observation of a flower. Ask yourself: At what point in a flower's life, from seed to full bloom, does it reach perfection?

Most of the anxiety we experience in life comes from our feeling that there is an end point of perfection in everything that we involve ourselves with.

Be cautious of the ideals of perfection communicated to us by marketing and the media.

We lose our happiness when we adopt an ideal image of perfection, as that shallow ideal is frozen, stagnant and limited by nature.

True perfection, in contract is limitless, unbounded, and always expanding. Learn from the blossoming flower.

Remember, the reason we bother ourselves with a lifelong effort to gain a practicing mind is not to be able to say, "I have mastered the technique of present-moment awareness." This is an ego-based statement.

We work at it because it brings us inner peace and happiness that we cannot attain through the acquisition of any material object or cultural status.

When we are aware of our present-mindedness, we are losing focus as we are concentrating on the fact that we are concentrating.

The Beginner's Mind

When we are practicing correctly, we are not aware we are practicing correctly. We are only aware and absorbed in the process of what we are doing in that moment.

From Zen, in the beginner's mind state, accomplishing an activity takes all your concentration,and your mind is empty of chatter.

In marital arts, a great medium for practicing present mindedness, a student performs moves deliberately over and over again with intention and awareness, to the point where it becomes totally reflexive and intuitive.

Most of us find that we are very good at practicing properly during recreational activities and have more difficulties doing things, categorized as "work".

We may describe those "work" activities as things we don't like doing or have to do.

A key thing to realize is that some person's work, may be another person's play. So what makes the difference, is our prejudgment of the activity.

Often when we say, we don't feel like doing something now, in reference to "work", we're not in the present moment but instead looking towards the future, anticipating another activity.

We have a habit of defining things as "work" if it requires a lot of decision making, which can be very stressful and fatiguing.

If faced with a "work" activity you find unenjoyable, try to tell yourself you will work on staying present-moment and process oriented for just the first half hour.

Then you can make whatever feelings of disinterest come back up if you please, but only focus on that activity first.

You don't have to force yourself to enjoy the activity, simply embrace and let it be, you'll find yourself noticing more of the little things you may have been missing.

Habits are learned choose them wisely

A number of people have become so disconnected from their thoughts.

We need to become an observer of our thoughts and actions, like an instructor watching a student performing a task.

The instructor is not judgmental or emotional. The instructor knows just what he or she wants the student to produce.

Habits and practice are very interrelated. What we practice will become a habit.

Our minds are going to practice certain behaviors whether or not we are aware of them,and whatever we practice is going to become a habit.

Through knowledge and awareness we can free ourselves of becoming victims of habits we unintentionally allow to be part of our behavior.

Sports psychologists have found that repeating a particular motion sixty times a day over twenty-one days will form a new habit that will become ingrained in your mind.

This form of practice can be spread across the day.

Being aware that all your motions, be they physical or mental, are habits and that you have the power to choose which habits you will create is very liberating.

You are in control.

All the Patience you will ever need is already in you.

Patience is defined the dictionary as "quiet perseverance."

It also contains and outer appearance of calmness.

Experiencing impatience is one of the first symptoms of not being in the present moment, not doing what you are going, and not staying process-oriented.

Most of what we worry about never comes to pas.

The mind anticipates circumstances that haven't happened yet and tries to answer questions that haven't even been asked.

Steps for creating patience

  1. Become aware of when your internal dialogue is running wild and dragging you with it.
  2. Understand and accept that there is not such thing as reaching a point of perfection in anything.

Develop a personal pursuit in the arts to find more appreciation for the endless stages of growth.

On reflecting on his music training the author recalls a revelation he had come up after his frustrations on not being good enough.

He became aware that there was no point of music excellence other there that would free him from the feeling that he needed to get better. There was no point, in which he would feel he had finally done it and never need to improve again.

There is a sense of freedom in knowing one will never run out of room to grow.

This shift in perception helped him become more patient with his progress.

He soon stopped looking at his progress and for progress, and realized that progress is a natural result of staying focused on the process.

When you stay on purpose, focused in the present moment, the goals comes towards you with frictionless ease.

However, when you constantly focus on the goal you are aiming for, you push it away instead of pulling it toward you.

In every moment that you look at the goal and compare your position to it, you affirm to yourself that you haven't reached it.

When you make a decision to acquire something whose acquisition will require long-term commitment, pick the goal and then be aware that you are entering the process of achieving the goal.

You have acknowledged the goal; now let go of it and put your energy into the practice and process that will move you toward that goal.

Simplicity in effort will conquer the most complex of tasks.

The Four "S" Words

The Four "S" words are simplify, small, short, and slow.

Simplify: Break down a project or activity into smaller components. Set realistic goals to reduce frustration.

Small: Break down the overall goal into small sections that can be achieved with a comfortable amount of concentration.

Short: Have short work periods where you can focus in small chunks overtime. Reduce the friction from starting and doing consistently.

Slow: Work at a pace that allows you to pay attention to what you are doing.

The four components are all part of the same process. Each one needs and creates the other.

When you work slowly, things become simpler.

If you want to simplify something, break it down into small parts and work more slowly at each part.

Equanimity is defined as even-temperedness and calmness.

Equanimity is a virtue worth developing and can be seen in practice when someone is undisturbed by the moment-to-moment ups and downs they experience in daily life.

Non-judgment quiets the internal dialogue of our mind.

Judgment requires the process of evaluation, the process of comparison.

Your perceptions and priorities evolve throughout your lifetime.

Judgements are necessary for us to function in life, but they have a downside: they are not executed with a detached nature.

There is usually some emotion involved, and the amount of emotion is proportional to the perceived importance of the judgment.

Too strong emotions or misguided emotions can hinder your decision making.

We must work at being more objectively aware of ourselves.

If you are aware of anything you are doing, that implies that their are two entities involved: one who is doing something and one who is aware of or observing you do it.

The one who is talking is your ego or your personality. The one who is quietly aware is who you really are: the Observer.

The More closely you become aligned with the quiet Observer, the less you judge.

The ego is subjective.

The Observer is objective.

As you practice meditation you become more aware of the silent observer within you.

Another method similar to meditation is the "Do, Observe, Correct", technique.

It can be applied to many activities, but is better suited for physical ones. Which makes it a good complement to meditation to get the internal and external covered.

Wisdom is not a by-product of age. Teach and learn from all those around you.

Time perception is an integral part of the difference between adults and children.

Children are more present oriented while adults are more future oriented. This paradox is both their and our strengths and weaknesses in the same instant.

We can learn a lot from children as we observe and teach them if we can listen to ourselves as we are in those activities.

With deliberate and repeated effort progress is inevitable

In every moment of your life, your skills are growing. The question is, in which direction?

All cultures begin by expending their energy and resources on survival.

Eventually, they get tho a point of asking what's for dinner, instead of whether theres something for dinner.

We have more choices and more freedom to utilize time towards our personal growth.

Still, there is a fork in the road.

On one path, we can spend a portion of this free time on expanding our spiritual awareness, the knowledge of our true self.

On the other, one can be stuck in an endless cycle of meaningless self-indulgence that, at its core, is an attempt to fill the spiritual void that many of us experience in our lives.

When you look at all the "things" that you have owned over the years, you'll realize you've lost interest and didn't need a number of your material possessions, and maybe even lost a few.

Everything you acquire spiritually expands your true nature and becomes a part of you forever.

On some level, we are aware of this overburden by material things and lack of spiritual investment.

We are distracted from it by information overload and other shallow parts of our society that create so much noise that we cannot truly hear our inner selves.

We can help by being more mindful of the information we consume.

If it doesn't enrich you, then you don't need it.

None of these lessons are new. They are just eternal lessons that we have learned and relearned over the centuries from those who were curious about the human nature.

posted February 29, 2016

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